Time for a fish braai

A sudden yen for a piece of fresh fish lured me down to the Strand Jetty on Human Rights Day, where I browsed the offerings, which ranged from snoek through silvers to yellowtail, and all at depressingly high prices.

I eventually settled on a yellowtail which felt nice and firm, for R100.

I doubt it was much more than a kilogram and a half in weight, which makes it pretty pricey for a whole fish.

I paid the standard fee for one of the resident fish cleaners to gut and scale the fish, but declined the offer to fillet it, as I prefer to do this myself.

It was only once I arrived home, that I realised that the fish had been frozen. I was disappointed, to say the least – but once completely thawed, the fish was firm to the touch and it smelled as fresh fish should smell, of the sea, and not of fish.

It had probably been frozen for not more than 48 hours.

The plan was to braai the fish, using the recipe and method I’ve used for decades, which entails skinning the fish – most experts will tell you this is the worst thing you can do – and letting it marinade in olive oil and spices for a few hours in the fridge before braaing it over a hot fire, another no-no according to the experts.

The idea is quite simple: you seal the fish over a hot fire, which takes about five minutes a side.

In order to keep the fish as moist as possible, I baste it with a mixture of melted butter, lemon juice and freshly chopped parsley, but unlike the conventional approach, I baste the fish immediately after I’ve turned it rather than just before I turn it. That way, you avoid flare ups when the butter hits the coals, and the baste has a chance to penetrate from the top, while the underside is cooking.

The other imperative is to use a scrupulously cleaned sandwich type braai, which is liberally brushed with olive oil, to ensure that the fish does not stick to the grid.

Ingredients, selection and pre-paration

A fish of your preference and size: scale, gut, fillet and skin the fish. Or get your fishmonger to do the job for you.

Salt and pepper

Fish spice (optional): there are a variety of commercial spice mixes for fish. Use one if you like, or make up your own by combining your favourite spices, but do sample the finished product before you use it.

Remember, fish is delicate, and you don’t want to overpower it with too pungent a spice mix.

Spices that come to mind include dried basil, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano, and sage. Which is pretty much what I used.

2 tbsp olive oil

250g butter

juice of one lemon

small bunch flat-leaf parsley: finely chopped.

Method

Prepare the fish first. Scale, gut, fillet and skin the fish. To skin a fillet of fish, you need a razor sharp filleting knife, which has a thin, narrow, curved, flexible blade.

Carefully lift the skin off the flesh at the tail end of a fillet. Lay the fillet skin side down on a hard flat surface, with the filleting blade positioned between the skin and the flesh. With a gentle but firm sawing motion, move the blade from tail end toward where the head used to be.

If you get it right, the skin should be perfectly separated from the fillet. It does take some practice.

Season the fish on both sides with your choice of fish spice and salt and pepper.

Liberally paint the fillets with olive oil, and seal in a zip lock bag from which all air is excluded.

Place in the fridge for at least an hour.

Melt the butter in a small bowl, and stir in the chopped parsley and lemon juice.

Make you fire, and once the flames have subsided, prepare your grid, place the fish fillets in the centre of the grid.

Close the grid firmly, and place it on the fire.

Liberally paint the fish fillets with the lemon butter mixture.

Turn after five minutes, and baste the other side, then braai for five minutes. Thereafter, turn the grid every few minutes, liberally basting the upside as soon as you’ve turned it.

Depending upon the thickness of the fillets, it will take between 10 and 20 minutes to cook through.

You want the fish moist inside, but done through, and not dry. Poke a sharp knife into the thickest part of the fillet, and dig out a few flakes to check if they are done through.

Keep on the fire for another few minutes before checking again.

Serve with a fresh salad and potato dish of your choice.

Preparation time: 90 minutes

Cooking time: 10 to 20 minutes

Yield: It depends on the fish size.